Kids who like noodles are in luck in Italy. School lunch almost always begins with a “primo” (or first course) of pasta — think penne with tomatoes and ricotta cheese. That’s typically followed by a protein-packed main dish, such as roasted chicken, accompanied by a veggie side. Finally, there’s dessert, usually fruit. (If a kid has allergies, or religious or other dietary restrictions, parents can request alternative meals.)
But what if kids would rather eat a homemade sandwich (or “panino”)?
That question became the basis of the “Panino Case,” a legal fight started by a group of parents in the city of Turin who had gotten fed up with the price and quality of school meals. Italy’s top court settled the matter this summer: Families do not have the right to send food to school.
The main problem the judges have with lunchboxes is that they can create divisions.
“Students are equal when they eat the same thing,” said Cristina Poncibò, a law professor at the University of Turin — although the mom of three children disagrees with the court’s ruling. She’s unhappy when ingredients aren’t organic and local. (“I don’t want meat coming from Belgium,” she says.)
For parents such as Poncibò, the good news is that individual schools can still choose whether to allow outside food.
Each nation has its own take on how to handle the meaty issue of feeding students.
Bringing food from home is the practice in a lot of places.
In Australia, for example, many schools don’t have a cafeteria. (Although there’s sometimes a canteen to get snacks, such as meat pies.) And, of course, packing a school lunch to take to school is as American as apple pie.
More American kids would be better off with school lunch, however, says Food Research & Action Center’s Crystal FitzSimons, who notes that cafeteria meals are healthier than what an average parent packs.
“Even if there’s pizza, it’s with whole-grain crust, turkey pepperoni and low-fat mozzarella,” she says.
Plus, because students in low-income families qualify for free or reduced-price meals, nearly three-quarters of the lunches eaten at school in 2018 were free or discounted.
“So there can be stigma around who’s participating and who’s not,” FitzSimons says, meaning kids without a lunchbox can feel singled out for being poor.
One way to avoid that problem is providing meals to everyone for free. In Sweden, where students chow down on a hot main dish and their pick of vegetables from a salad bar, no one needs lunch money. A recent study found that 97 percent of Swedish 9-year-olds eat school lunch.
The country with a system most similar to Italy’s is its neighbor, France, where kids are expected to eat their school’s multicourse meals, with almost no exceptions.
“It’s for a healthy diet, but also for cultural aspects and pleasure,” says Florent Vieux, general director of the French research group MS Nutrition.
He appreciates what the fixed menus have taught his son.
“When he doesn’t want carrots for the starter, he doesn’t eat. At the beginning it’s difficult,” he says. “Then day after day, he eats more carrots because he knows he has no other choice.”
Italian parents aren’t accepting their situation so willingly, according to Poncibò, who is seeing panino pushback. She said she knows of families protesting by refusing to purchase school supplies. “Their reaction is, ‘If we can’t bring food, we won’t bring the other things.’ ”